He will go down as the greatest male road racer ever, but Eddy Merckx also built one of the best teams ever. So how did he prepare them to win?
When Italian coffee machine manufacturer Faema recruited Eddy Merckx in 1968, the deal was to provide the cash not only to pay Merckx but to let him build the best team. That agreement was sealed when Molteni took over sponsoring Merckx’s team in 1971.
Merckx and his manager Jean Van Buggenhout enlisted the best talent possible. The pay was good, but they could forget personal glory. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the team met at his house just outside Brussels for a ride. Most of the team were Belgians, so they were expected to turn up. And the ride plan was simple and unwavering
Once the team was assembled there was a pretty tough regime implemented. Training started on January 1 each year, and riders were expected to stay fit through to the end of the previous year. They had to cope with what Merckx had in store for them.
For almost the whole of January, the team rode 200 kilometres together. They rode side by side, swapping riders at the front. And they rode whatever the weather threw at them. Rain, hail or sleet, it didn’t matter.
They rode from Brussels to the East Flanders hills, the Flemish Ardennes, did a big loop of the Tour of Flanders climbs, then rode back to Brussels again.
The training group would have a team car following them, with bike spares, extra clothing, food and drinks because there were never any stops.
The car didn’t pick up stragglers though. Anybody who dropped behind had to make their own way back, then explain to the boss why they were late. And if it rained or if sleet fell, Merckx would just tell the group it would probably do the same in the Tour of Flanders, so they’d better get used to it.
Once back at Merckx’s place the riders showered and ate — usually the universal pro recovery food of Seventies Belgians, hot minestrone soup — then the group dispersed. And in the days they were at home, they were expected to do their own training.
It was a tough regime but when the season started in February, Merckx and his men were always ready. He was never less than competitive in his favourite first races; the Trofeo Laigueglia, Monaco GP and the Tour of Sardinia, often winning them.
Then Merckx would roar into the Classics. Winning Milan-San Remo seven times was no accident — it was based on those Monday, Wednesday and Friday sessions.